A Brief History of Miniatures

A Brief History of Miniatures

by Elizabeth Allen



Examples of small or miniature art can be found going back over a thousand years and in cultures and artistic traditions from around the world. The term 'miniature' is actually closely tied to the history of art and has its origins in medieval illuminated manuscripts, which, before the invention of printing, were handwritten and contained a variety of decorations and embellishments. While the art included in these manuscripts was often small in size, the word ‘miniature’ first emerged to refer not to their size, but to the use of minium, or red lead pigment. The titles, headings, and initials of illuminated manuscripts, as well as some of the decorations, were frequently done in this red pigment to contrast with the black ink of the text, and these decorations thus became known as ‘miniatures’, from the Latin miniare, meaning ‘to color with minium'.


Left: Book of Hours, French, c. 1415 - 1420, Tempera colors, gold paint, gold leaf, and ink on parchment bound between wood boards covered with white pigskin, 8 1/16 x 5 13/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 22; Right: Spinola Hours, Flemish, c. 1510 - 1520, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment bound between pasteboard covered with red morocco, 9 1/8 x 6 9/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 18


In addition to being miniatures by the above definition, many of the European illuminated manuscripts created during the Middle Ages were also literally quite small in size and meant to be portable. The Book of Hours was a prayer book developed for the laity in the Middle Ages and became incredibly popular during the later medieval period. Unlike larger manuscripts held in monasteries or churches, these prayer books were created for individual, private devotion. The level of decoration and detail ranged from more simple decoration in mass-produced examples to ornate examples commissioned by the wealthy.


Left: Attributed to Rinaldo da Siena, Leaf from a gradual, Italian, c. 1275, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, 20 13/16 x 14 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 71; Right: Five Leaves from a Noted Breviary, c. 1420, Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 24 


As the practice of illuminated manuscripts was flourishing in parts of Europe, miniature paintings were also gaining popularity in parts of the Middle East and Asia. In India, the tradition of miniature painting can be traced back to the tenth century. Like in Europe, early Indian miniatures were created to accompany religious texts, but they were also created to illustrate mythological epics. With the emergence of the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century, the subject of these miniature paintings grew to include portraits and court scenes. This style of painting continued to flourish throughout India into the nineteenth century, and different regions and courts developed their own styles, focusing on subjects that varied from religious imagery to nature scenes and poetry illustrations.


Krishna Battles the Armies of the Demon Naraka: Page from a Dispersed Bhagavata Purana (Ancient Stories of Lord Vishnu), c. 1520–30, India, Delhi–Agra area, Ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 7 x 9 1/8 in. Image c/o the Metropolitan Museum of Art (


Left: The month of Bhadrapada or Bhadon. August/September. c. 1700-1725. From an album containing 14 miniatures, Opaque watercolour on paper. Image c/o The British Museum; Right: Attributed to Basawan, Alexander Visits the Sage Plato in His Mountain Cave: Folio from the Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi, Mughal period, 1597–98, India, Main support: ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; margins: gold on dyed paper; 9 7/8 x 6 1/4 in. Image c/o the Metropolitan Museum of Art (


During the early modern period, the subject matter of miniature painting began to expand in Europe as well. Growing out of the illuminated manuscript tradition, portrait miniatures became common throughout Europe in the sixteenth century. It was also around this time that the word miniature gained its official connotation with size. As the printing press made books less expensive and easier to mass-produce, the market for illuminated manuscripts declined. Due to this decline in demand, miniaturists such as the Flemish painter Simon Bening (c. 1483-1561) and French court painter Jean Clouet (1485-1540) began painting independent miniatures. The technique used to create these early independent miniatures—a highly trained artist using precise and delicate brushwork with water-based paints on vellum or prepared paper—was the same skill set used to illuminate manuscripts. When combined with the tradition of classical portrait medals, which was revived during the Renaissance, the creation of portrait miniatures took off across Europe, particularly in Britain.


Left: Simon Bening, Calendar Miniatures from a Book of Hours, about 1550, Tempera colors and gold paint on parchment, 2 3/16 x 3 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 50; Right: Jean Clouet, Charles de Cossé, c. 1535, Vellum, Diameter 1 1/2 in. Image c/o Metropolitan Museum of Art (


Left: Nicholas Hilliard, Queen Elizabeth I, 1572, Watercolour on vellum, 2 in. x 1 7/8 in. Image c/o National Portrait Gallery, London; Center: Richard Gibson, A Woman, Called Mrs. William Russell, 1655-1660, Watercolour on vellum, 1.9 x 1.6 in. Image c/o Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Right: Gervase Spencer, Portrait of an Unknown Woman Wearing a Turkish Costume, 1755, Enamel on metal, 1.9 x 1.6 in. Image c/o Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Left: Richard Cosway, Unknown Boy, possibly Sir Frederick Augustus D'Este, 1799, Watercolour on ivory, 3.5 x 2.7 in. Image c/o Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Center: Chinnery, Mrs. Robert Sherson, 1803, Watercolour on ivory 6.1 x 4.8 in. Image c/o Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Right: William Ross, Portrait Miniature of Mrs. Bacon, 1841, Watercolour on ivory, 8.4 x 6.9 in. Image c/o Victoria & Albert Museum, London


Taking root in the court of Henry VIII, English court painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) helped to popularize the art form. These portrait miniatures, which were sometimes mounted on jewelry or decorative boxes, served as mementos of loved ones, gifts to be exchanged among the aristocracy, and even as symbols of political allegiance. During the reign of Elizabeth I, some of her wealthy subjects began wearing portraits of her as a sign of loyalty to the crown and to Protestant England. The popularity of portrait miniatures continued in Britain until the nineteenth century, with later portraits utilizing watercolors on ivory. The introduction of commercial photography in 1839, however, provided an affordable alternative to portrait miniatures, and as photography became more common and less expensive throughout the nineteenth century, the demand for portrait miniatures decreased.

Left: Follower of Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII, 16th century, 6.5 x 6.5 in. Image c/o Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Right: Hans Holbein, Portrait of Jane Small, c. 1540, Watercolour on vellum. Image c/o Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Working in miniature continued to be a draw for artists, though, and two key twentieth-century modernists, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Alberto Burri (1915-1995), employed miniaturization in their work. Beginning in 1934 Marcel Duchamp, a pioneer of the Dada movement, began creating miniature versions of his major paintings, drawings, and sculptures. These miniatures formed the bases of his Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Valise), a miniature portable museum. Over the course of decades and multiple editions, Duchamp and his assistants created 300 valises. By creating these miniature museums filled with replicas of his artwork, Duchamp used replication and the miniature form to challenge accepted notions of authenticity and the idea of what constituted ‘original artwork.’ 


Marcel DuChamp, 1942-54, Boîte-en-valise [The box in a valise]. Image c/o National Gallery of Australia. © Marcel Duchamp. Licensed by ADAGP & VISCOPY, Australia


Like Duchamp, Italian artist Alberto Burri also created miniature versions of his own artwork. Continuing the tradition of miniatures as gifts, beginning in the 1950s, Burri started sending James Johnson Sweeney, then director of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, miniature versions of his paintings for Christmas. Those miniatures are on display now at the Guggenheim as part of Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, on until January 6.


Alberto Burri, Installation of minis in solo exhibition, The Trauma of Painting. Image c/o Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, © David M. Heald


The miniature form has been used in art for centuries, and contemporary artists continue to gain inspiration from working in small scale, utilizing this practice in new and exciting ways. Sugarlift artists are no exception, and Sugarlift Minis are an even more affordable way to collect work from your favorite artists. Go to to shop the mini collection! We hope you enjoyed this brief history of miniatures, and look out for more “brief history” posts on the Sugarlift blog in the future!